Bias in leadership: What's your story?


Dan Robertson is the diversity and inclusion director at the Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion. He is highly respected as a subject matter expert on workplace diversity and inclusion management, unconscious bias and inclusive leadership. 

Like so many people, at the beginning of the New Year I made a pact with myself to read more novels. I Skyped a few friends and posted my new pact on Facebook, made a cup of tea and waited for the suggestions to roll in. I finally opted for the Century Trilogy by Ken Follett, (not realising until I arrived at my local book store that each book within the trilogy is 900 pages long…). The trilogy follows the often interconnected lives of British, German, Russian and American families through the two world wars and up to the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. On the one hand the trilogy reads as a classic historical narrative on key social and political events of the 20th century. I however read these as a critique on classical forms of leadership. 

In a Harvard Business Review special on leadership (Fall 2014), John P. Kotter reminds us that leadership, unlike management, is about coping with change. And that facilitating change involves creating a vision for the future and actively engaging, motivating and inspiring those you seek to lead. What we witness through the writing of Ken Follett is a certain type of 20th century leadership – male centric, egotistical, ruling by fear, command and control, leader knows best, and in-group bias leadership. Key historical leaders appear to suffer from overconfidence bias. These leaders also surround themselves with yes men (and they are all men), creating high levels of in-group conformity, resulting in major errors in strategic planning and decision making. The results as we all know were monumentally tragic. 

Unfortunately, and far too often, this male centric, command and control and in-group bias style of leadership is one which I observe in many modern day public and private sector organisations. During a recent flight to New York, I was reading through the results of a global business’s employee engagement survey. Here’s a summary of some of the things employees said: 

  1. We say we want to bring in different types of people but we tend to hire mini-me’s in our business: White, male, and Ivy League. I think this is a real problem. 
  2. It’s not what you know that gets you ahead, in this business, it’s who you know.
  3. We have no real structure to our promotions processes. I have no clue how I personally am viewed by the powers that be. Promotion decisions may as well be conducted in a smoke filled room.
  4. I do think that we have a real jobs for the boys culture. Just think of our social events – Friday drinks, conversations that focus on sport, golf days and the annual ski trip! It’s dreadful, but worst of all the leaders seem to think that this is all fine. 
  5. Our leaders don’t know how to lead. They never own up to their mistakes but are quick to point out other peoples’ errors. 
  6. Our leaders talk the right talk on gender diversity, but I’m not convinced they really buy into it. It’s simply lip service when it comes to it. 
These comments highlight the impact on employee motivation and engagement that results from inherent in-group bias as demonstrated through the decision making process and behaviours of leaders. Whilst this particular client was from the private sector, far too many values based public sector organisations throw up discontent and a sense of exclusion and bias within key decision making processes, impacting talent and creating organisational insiders and organisational outsiders. 

Focusing on the dynamics of business insiders/outsiders I was once asked read to a group of senior managers in a large public sector organisation a set of quotes from their own employee engagement survey. I then followed up with one simple question, why should anyone be led by you? Of course this is the classic question first posed by Goffee and Jones in their 2009 HBR article on authentic leadership. For them, exceptional leaders possess four key qualities: 
  1. They selectively reveal their weakness: Doing so sends a signal to employees that the leader is approachable. It also helps to build a culture of respect and trust.
  2. Reliance on intuition to gauge their course of action: These leaders are ‘situational sensors’. They know what’s going on without being told. 
  3. Managing employees with ‘tough empathy’: This means giving people what they need, not what they want. 
  4. Capitalise on their differences: They use what is unique about themselves to motivate their employees to perform better. 

I see many connection points with Goffee and Jones’s notion of authentic leadership and my work at enei on inclusive leadership. At enei we define inclusive leadership as: 

“Leaders who are aware of their own biases and preferences, actively seek out and consider different views and perspectives to inform better decision making. They see diverse talent as a source of competitive advantage and inspire diverse people to drive organisational and individual performance towards a shared vision”.

Underpinning this definition includes a set of leadership behaviours which include:

  • Showing genuine and individual interest and support for people
  • Avoiding the leader knows best dynamic by encouraging others to develop ideas and to be challenging
  • Actively showing acceptance of everyone without bias
  • Avoiding in-group bias by providing opportunities for all employees to realise their potential

Finally, the real questions for today’s leader include: Are you aware of how you appear to others who are different to you? How do you move outside of your comfort zones? How do insider outsider dynamics play out in your organisations? And are you brave enough to challenge the status quo? If a colleague wrote a trilogy about you, how would it read? 

You can contact Dan on LinkedIn: Dan Robertson or Twitter: @dan_robertson1 or email:

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